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Living your best life

How should we tackle our unhappiness epidemic? The answer, suggests David Brooks in The Second Mountain, is to be found in other people.

In the title essay of her 1991 collection, Good Boys and Dead Girls, the American novelist Mary Gordon analyses a recurrent trope in American fiction – “the healthy male animal, the running boy”, the male hero whose poignant search for absolute self-determination is celebrated, despite the rising body-count (literal and metaphorical) of women left in his wake. Writers such as Theodore Dreiser, William Faulkner and John Updike (in differing but still deadly idioms) all see women as menacing them because women speak of boundedness, connection and continuity. These are the things that stand in the way of the young man struggling to retain innocence – understood, strangely, as boundlessness and the unfettered liberty to keep moving. Much can be forgiven these heroes, it seems, because they are filled with a “virginal desire” that is “beautiful” (Faulkner’s words); the reader is invited to collude with this passionate longing for the unfettered self, and to ignore the cost to other (overwhelmingly female) lives.

Gordon’s essay forms a useful backdrop for reading David Brooks’s new study of what is needed for a moral life. Like his earlier book, The Road to Character (2015), it works with a straightforward story about two phases in human life: the period of developing a sense of self – working towards success and free self-definition, a goal of unfettered choice; and “the second mountain” – the set of challenges that may arrive at any point in the journey but usually come with maturity. This is the period of commitment, self-limitation and ultimately self-surrender. It involves a sense of calling, a stable pattern of relationship in a family, a coherent faith or philosophy of life and a set of community connections that sustain and nourish the renewed and converted self.

What distinguishes this book from its predecessor, though, is that Brooks, who is also an influential columnist for the New York Times, casts this contrast largely in terms of the difference between happiness and joy. He argues that the search for a self-defined and self-sufficient happiness – something like the innocent boundless ego of American male fantasy as Gordon presents it – is a recipe for crisis and depression, and he has plenty of statistics in support of the chilling prevalence of deep, corrosive unhappiness among many young people in modern America.

Borrowing Gordon’s diagnostic model, we could say that the myth of the “running boy” has now become pervasive, independent of gender. “Our society has become a conspiracy against joy”, Brooks writes early in the book; and “wandering, loneliness, detachment, doubt, underemployment, heartbreaks and bad bosses” are the lot of most people in their early twenties, despite their general confidence that they will one day reach their goals.

Joy, by contrast, is what happens when you have stopped planning for happiness. It is the unexpected grace that overtakes you as the focus from the ego shifts to something else, whether that is the child who wakes you in the middle of the night or the moment on the dance floor where you are completely given over to the music or the breaking-through of generous action in the face of need and pain – what Brooks calls “moral joy”. Commitment and the risk that comes with commitment is a necessary condition for any chance of experiencing this. The second and third parts of the book elaborate what happens after the inevitable “dark night” of psychic crisis where the unfettered life has led not to perpetual free motion but to stasis and misery. These chapters survey the nature of a sense of vocation, the importance of personal mentors and the central significance of marriage as the most universally available vehicle for intelligently developing intimacy and trust and letting go of the fantasy of unbounded gratification.

Brooks expresses his dissatisfaction with those recent writers (including the British philosopher Alain de Botton and the American psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb) who have argued for reduced expectations of marriage and defended what might be called the “good enough” marriage. No, says Brooks, we should aim for and expect “maximum” marriage, grounded in traditional romantic love and imagined as a lifelong and exclusive partnership. The next section of the book, as it moves into the case for religious and philosophical commitment, makes it rather touchingly clear that Brooks himself has, in his quite recent second marriage, experienced just this exhilarating summons into trust and intimacy. And, in a chapter entitled “A Most Unexpected Turn of Events”, he describes his conversion to Christianity, a process closely connected to a new and healing partnership.

This takes him into a final section on the renewal of community, detailing the ways in which citizens can make local communities work justly and nurturingly, against all the odds. The epilogue, setting out a “relationalist manifesto”, lists the principles to hold on to if we want to move towards a new “moral ecology” in our society, quoting the great American Catholic anarchist Dorothy Day on building a society “in which it is easier to be good”, where, in Brooks’s own words, “Neighbourliness becomes the default state.” The running boy is persuaded to sit still and make connections; the unfettered life commits to space and time.

It is a disarming book, more digestible and more vulnerable than Brooks’s work on character, and noticeably more preoccupied with sustainable communal living as much as with individual moral development. Brooks has sometimes been twinned with Jordan Peterson as an evangelist for some sort of return to classical ethical ideals, but this doesn’t really work; not only is Brooks less compulsively angry and scornful, he sees the cultural crisis in which we are enmeshed as the product of folly and fantasy rather than of an active assault on traditional values.

What he pinpoints – like Mary Gordon – is the cost of living in a culture in which it has become harder to learn anything. The myth of innocent, unconstrained energy directs our attention to what we want here and now: we may think of it (as the “beautiful” young males of Gordon’s essay do) in terms of the freedom to move at will, but this freedom has become, paradoxically, an imprisonment in the comfort zone of our own self-defined needs, an addiction to instability and emotional isolation.

To learn – for that matter, to grow up – is to be able to tell a story of how you move both in step and in tension with others whom you regard as potential partners in the ongoing task of finding a stable identity. This doesn’t sound like rocket science; but Brooks is right to warn about the ease with which we abandon ideas of a continuous subject growing over time. There is something strikingly similar about managerial models of human identity (the individual as a tradable package of skills and resources) and the radical dissolution of the continuous self as argued for in some sorts of postmodernist rhetoric. It is not the only area in which postmodernity and late capitalism end up as disturbingly compatible bedfellows.

Part of the force and appeal of what Brooks has to say is the insistence that to understand myself I must understand that I have a role in the perception and emotion of others, so that I am not simply the proprietor of a ready-made self. Working with, discovering, learning what it is to be seen and spoken to and acted upon is intrinsic to growing as a human.

If we can see ourselves as shaped by a cumulative process of learning, we are left neither with a mythically fixed selfhood nor with an individual will that can make and remake our identities as we choose, but with a self that is unceasingly adjusting to, digesting and improvising in relation to other selves. The result is the kind of interaction Brooks outlines so well in his last section on community, where he details how support systems can be created in deprived communities to tackle the isolation of the elderly or the violent alienation of the young. If the reader is concerned about knife crime in London, the principles that Brooks lays down are as relevant here as in Chicago (and the best community work in the UK already takes such an approach for granted). He describes programmes that encourage young males to look for regular mentoring, to report honestly to a group of peers on their emotional, spiritual and physical well-being; and schemes in which a parent and an infant visit a school classroom so that the students can learn about “emotional literacy” and “how deep attachment works”.

It would not be too misleading to say that a lot of what Brooks is advocating is in tune with the “Blue Labour” agenda of Maurice Glasman or Adrian Pabst. But to say this is also to be reminded that Brooks, as in his earlier book, is reticent about systemic causes for our ills, macroeconomic forces, inequalities of power and so on. There are some other weaknesses in the book. I’m not sure, for example, that he quite sees the point of the defence of “good enough” marriage. Those who have written on this have been warning against overloading our expectation of marriage as if it were the only truly meaningful relationship we entered into, and pressing us to recognise that being too messianic about marriage can put intolerable strain on a partnership. To acknowledge this is not to undermine what Brooks says about stability and commitment, only to give due attention to the prose as well as the ecstasy of committed partnership.

More generally, there are long passages where the reader is conscious of the engine turning over, where the bright jerkiness and name-checking of the style become too much like the tone of the conventional self-help book. For a quite different way to encounter some of the same ideas without the forced bounciness, Walker Percy’s 1983 book Lost in the Cosmos, chaotic and repetitive as it sometime is, remains the best and funniest example, suffused with a deadpan irony and grotesquerie that is very Southern (Brooks is quintessentially Yankee).

Brooks’s most impassioned pages are those describing his conversion. They will no doubt provoke very diverse reactions. But he puts his finger unerringly on what matters most in the faith he has learned to inhabit. He has stressed throughout the importance of commitment; but at the end of the section on faith and world-views, he writes: “Consider the possibility that we are the ones committed to, the objects of an infinite commitment… to redeem us and bring us home.”

It is his clearest testimony to the far-reaching reversal of perspective that life on the “second mountain” brings, an unexpected grace that is somehow intentional and personal, not just a fortunate chance realignment of how things seem in the world. Whether the reader is convinced or not, the book overall, candid about the reality of stress and failure in the author’s life, has earned the right to put forward with equal candour the experience of finding, or being found by, faith. The running boy – of whatever gender or nationality – is invited to come back and make a home. 

The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life
David Brooks
Allen Lane, 384pp, £20

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 18 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special